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What is Right and What is Wrong?

Updated on April 4, 2013

People all over the world somehow decide what's right and what's wrong and then are so sure of themselves that they pass their views to their children, who grow up and decide for themselves whether their parents actually had a lick of sense or not.

Morality and ethics has been developed and reformed over the course of history and it remains adaptable today.

This article aims to explore the different sources of morality and their weaknesses, leaving you to decide what really is morality and whether acting morally all the time is even possible?

For Some It's Simple

A monument reminding passing by christians and jews the ten simple rules they are to abide by.
A monument reminding passing by christians and jews the ten simple rules they are to abide by. | Source

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Another problem with gods and their supposed moral authority is covered in Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma. In the dialogue, Socrates asks Euthyphro (an 'expert' on religion) questions until Euthyphro is left with two undesirable options. In fact, the very situation was about what makes up a 'pious' decision and applies to what makes something "moral".

The problem goes like this: the question "are the commands god gives us in the bible morally good because God says they are morally good or because there is something intrinsically moral about them?" If you accept the first answer, then what when we say "god is good" it merely means "god agrees with himself" which reduces any further of his actions, or, if you accept the second answer, then god is completely separate from morality - meaning that we can deduce right and wrong without him.

Duty: Christian Ethics

Although there are many religions that dictate to its adherents that 'duty' is the basis of their morality, I will be using Christianity as my example because it remains today the most popular religion in the world.

Morality for the religious is relatively simple, what is good is what God wants us to do and what is bad is what God doesn't want us to do.

Christianity is of course based on the teachings of the Bible, which includes many rules that either must be or are at the very least advised to be followed by everyone of the Christian faith. Rules like the '10 commandments' (do not steal, do not murder etc.) provide clear guidance of what is right and what is wrong.


  • Ambiguity
    The main problem with basing your moral decisions on an ancient tome is that old religious doctrines are very ambiguous and do not cover many of the problems that people are faced with today. Christians can get around this problem by stating that they live by general rules that Jesus taught, like 'love thy neighbour' but this just poses many more difficult questions like 'what is the loving thing to do?' for which there is very little guidance.
  • God's Existence
    The whole argument is based on the idea that God, as described by such an unreliable source as the Bible, is real. With every scientific breakthrough and logical theory explored, the possibility of the god described by the bible and other doctrines (also known as personal gods) existing becomes lower and lower. Since god by most ways of thinking cannot exist, it follows that any moral rules founded entirely upon his existence (rules such as 'murder is wrong because God commanded it') are null.

Duty: Kantian Ethics

Another duty based ethical theory is that of Immanuel Kant's who, much like the strict rules of the Bible, stated that people must follow rigid rules of morality at all times in their life. Although a devout christian himself, Kant does not base his moral absolutes on the bible but invents them himself.

It's about your motives -
He states that motives are the most important thing to think about when deciding whether someone's action was moral or not - if you try and help someone but accidentally hurt them in the process, then your action was still good because of your good motive regardless of the negative consequences.

The only correct motive, Kant argues, is a sense of duty and nothing else. In other words you must do the right thing because you know it is the right thing to do.

Emotions are not part of morality -
If you make a decision to help someone out of compassion or in fact do anything out of any emotion then Kant would argue that your motives were not moral since after all you cannot control your emotions (without those emotions you may have acted differently in the same situation). If you kill someone because you are angry that they did something wrong you would be acting on your emotions - without those emotions you would have acted differently and so if emotions cannot be controlled but can control your behaviour, they cannot have any part in morality.

Benefits are not a part of morality -
Of course, doing a good deed because you expected a reward is also seen not seen as a moral action. If you paid money to a charity so that your friends or partner thought you were nice then since your intentions were never good the action was never good either.


Consequentialism can be thought of as the opposite of deontology (and Kant's ethics). As you might guess from the name, a consequentialist decides what is a moral action based on the consequences of said action.

If you maliciously murder someone but inadvertently you save millions of lives (perhaps, you killed hitler before WW2) then consequentialists would accept that your action was a moral one. Your motives might not be, but the action itself ended up in the saving of millions of lives.

This ethical theory accepts that in some cases, otherwise horrific acts like murder may in some cases be the most moral action.

Consequentialism features many sub-categories because of the key question: how can you measure consequence?

Many people have tried to answer this question but perhaps the most noteworthy of such people is Jeremy Bentham and his namesake: utilitarianism.


Utilitarianism focusses on providing "the greatest good for the greatest number" on the basis that it would be illogical to want "the greatest pain for the greatest number" or "the least good for the least number."

Jeremy Bentham is quoted to say "nature has placed us under two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure. Therefore, he defines good as that which brings pleasure and bad as that which causes pain.

Although there are many interesting types of utilitarianism each tackling and creating their own problems [all of which can be found here] the most famous one, invented first by Jeremy Bentham himself, uses something called a hedonic calculus in order to objectively calculate the more moral action in a given situation.

This calculus requires you to calculate and rank the following 7 criteria out of a maximum value (e.g. out of 10):

  1. Intensity - how much happiness will result out of the action.
  2. Certainty - what is the likelihood that the pleasure will actually arise.
  3. Duration - how long will the pleasure last for.
  4. Purity - what is the probability that any resulting pain will lead to more pain?
  5. Extent - how many people will the pleasure affect?
  6. Fecundity - what is the probability that any resulting pleasure will lead to even more pleasure?
  7. Propinquity - how far off is the pleasure?
    [6. and 7. were added by later philosophers]

Don't forget to vote and have your say!
Don't forget to vote and have your say!

So, That's It?!

Yes, although us humans have had roughly 200,000 (woah there!) years to think about it, the above theories of ethics and morality are all that we have so far. The reason for this however is that for 99.9% of that time we were either learning how to survive as a species (had better things to do) or were forced to follow particular rules i.e. it was impossible to have other views than the ones religions crammed down their people's throats.

At the same time, it's worth considering just how important ethical theories are - they dictate how everyone should live and this is not something to underestimate. Deciding on the fate of the human race is a big task and requires a lot of thought, many people just feel overwhelmed by the topic and don't even attempt to touch it. The inspiring thing to note however is that there have always been people to question, even risking their lives in doing so, their current standards of morality and cry out against it - these people should be known and admired: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and many more.

Of course, the truth is that most people today do not follow a theory of morality very strictly and will do a mixture of following some religious and other rules of thumb, deciding what is best for the majority based on reason, or, and I say this purely from my own experience, act selfishly with no care for others at all.

Voting Time!

Which is your favourite Ethical Theory?

See results


3.5 out of 5 stars from 2 ratings of humanities efforts to create morality


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    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Yes, I think that even if we don't get anywhere objectively people will at least think about morality from time to time!

    • Anna Sternfeldt profile image

      Anna Sternfeldt 5 years ago from Svenljunga, Sweden

      It is all very tricky :-) but that is why it is so important to discuss...

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Hahah I agree Anna Sternfeldt, I feel like certain things like education, police training and research, fire service are always safe bets of what a consequentialist or utilitarian would want his efforts invested in.

      It's just when you apply consequentialism to the law that it all gets tricky!

    • Anna Sternfeldt profile image

      Anna Sternfeldt 5 years ago from Svenljunga, Sweden

      Consequentialism does indead have flaws as there are so many things happening that we don't intend and that would make it so hard.

      Can't keep myself from commenting on Hitler, instead of murder Hitler we should have supported peace education in schools and other stuff so Hitler never would have got any support in the first place.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Aye, and at the very least you would want to be asked!

    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 5 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      That is why there are police, laws, courts, prisons and guns.

      Keeping the wife, or you, happy should there be a problem should be a joint decision. If it is agreed to there is nothing wrong with such an arrangement.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Ah I agree with you Borsia, that simple rule would work for the most part, excluding of course sadists. Unfortunately I fear it requires too much thought for many people who's decisions will be biased according to their own needs "if I couldn't please my wife then I would WANT* someone else to have an affair with her".

    • Borsia profile image

      Borsia 5 years ago from Currently, Philippines

      I voted for Consequentialism though it is deeply flawed and more of a “lesser of evils” type of vote.

      If one murdered Hitler; at what point in his life? Had he been assassinated during WWII chances are that the Germans would have done far better and might have in fact won the war. It was his ineptitude that caused many of the major defeats of the Nazis.

      But if you murdered him before then it is just plain murder and can’t be defended as a moral action.

      I suppose there was a moment in the build up shortly before the war where it might have prevented the war but that is unlikely since the reasons for the war are far more complex that just Hitler.

      If one is searching for a simple moral compass it has been around long before Christianity and probably had been said long before any of the big ancient religions.

      “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

      Sadly it is seldom used throughout history. It is pretty much the standard for atheists.